`Great things' wherever he goes

Drive: David S. Cordish is a competitor - in the classroom, on the playing field, in urban development.

March 14, 2004|By Robert Little and Mike Adams | Robert Little and Mike Adams,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

David S. Cordish was supposed to be a lawyer. In the early years after graduating from the University of Maryland law school in 1963, Cordish toiled in Baltimore courtrooms, working for his father's Eutaw Street practice.

But then a group of desperate investors persuaded Cordish to underwrite and manage their flailing Harford County retail project, and one of the nation's most-acclaimed developers emerged.

When the Edgewood Shopping Center opened in the early 1970s - the first among dozens of strip malls that he would build and own - Cordish's future as a practicing attorney was effectively ended. "I knew I never could get that feeling in law," he told The Sun a few years ago.

Born in Baltimore in 1940, Cordish was reared within some of the city's most-celebrated educational institutions. His grades at City College and the Johns Hopkins University were distinguished, if often forgotten among the accolades he earned on the athletic field. Tales of Cordish's skill with a stick or racket, and particularly his role as a face-off specialist on Hopkins' national champion lacrosse team in 1959, creep into conversations with his old friends. He is said to still favor athleticism when hiring employees, demanding the same competitiveness and discipline of his business associates that he expects in sports.

The shopping center business made Cordish wealthy. He was making so much money in 1978 that high school friend Robert C. Embry Jr. almost didn't offer him the job that would redefine his professional life. But Embry asked, Cordish accepted, and the successful developer put his business in mothballs to work for Embry at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development at a salary of less than $50,000 a year.

As administrator of the Urban Development Action Grants program, Cordish handed out subsidies designed to encourage downtown investment by offsetting the costs of urban construction. Baltimore's Hyatt Regency Hotel on Light Street was a recipient. Cordish gave out more than $1.5 billion across the nation before leaving the post in 1981.

"He and Embry did great things in a lot of different cities, including Baltimore," said Donald E. Hunter, an Annapolis-based real estate consultant. "There weren't many guys like Cordish in public administration who had successful business and development backgrounds. Still aren't. And a lot of their accomplishments from 20 years ago are still successful, still paying off all over the country."

Soon after leaving government service, Cordish and Embry went into business together developing urban projects. Detroit, Charleston, S.C., and Niagara Falls, N.Y., signed them on, and the team developed the kinds of downtown entertainment centers that are now a Cordish Co. specialty.

Projects such as Charleston Place in South Carolina, Bayou Place in Houston and the Power Plant at Baltimore's Inner Harbor have won the Cordish Co. a place atop the list of national developers that government leaders call when they want the best.

Cordish often boasts that he doesn't need to work. His development company still makes a hefty profit from the dozens of suburban strip malls that it built and owns, he said. While he is a prominent social figure among Baltimore charities, he has a private reputation as a shrewd negotiator with almost ruthless dedication to his convictions.

Cordish keeps a pile of toys in one corner of his Power Plant office for the grandchildren that he calls his greatest passion. Cordish also boasts, however, that he and his colleagues work 100-hour weeks, much of the time developing and managing urban entertainment projects, often in partnership with local governments, despite a low profit margin and frequent complications. The money, he says, is no longer the point.

"I love what I'm doing," Cordish said. "I love changing situations. I'm going to change the whole Seminole nation, just like we changed parts of Baltimore and parts of Houston."

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